During the Vietnam War era, President Richard Nixon worried about his country becoming a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Now, with the world’s only superpower over-reacting to fears, that possibility seems to have resurfaced. Two recent U.S. measures relating to Cuba hint at weak knees.

Washington officials recently refused permission for U.S. filmmaker Brian De Palma to attend the 29th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana. His film “Redacted,” a story of misfortunes surrounding the U.S. invasion of Iraq, was shown Dec. 5 at the inaugural event of the famous film festival. At the 2007 Venice Film Festival, De Palma won the best director’s award for the film.

And this month the U.S. government denied permission for five members of the European Parliament, representatives from Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Germany, to visit five Cuban men held in U.S. prisons for actions taken to defend the Cuban people against terrorism.

The parliamentarians issued a statement protesting the refusal as “an outright provocation to worldwide democratic public opinion,” and condemned the U.S. government for “violating the basic human rights of the five prisoners [and] basic principles of international and humanitarian law.”

Presumably Washington was acting to maintain its long embargo on news from Cuba and to discourage public knowledge about the Cuban Five. Free flow of information concerning Cuba seems to make U.S. leaders uneasy.

By contrast, a lot of bad news in other areas does circulate without the news bearers being openly attacked. Bush administration news managers seem to have coped, for example, with the wide diffusion of news about torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

The administration routinely dealt with press reports on the CIA use of European airports to transport duct-taped passengers to torturers. It didn’t seem to faze the White House. Probably foreigners reporting on the issue could gain easy entry into the United States, if they wanted to come.

Stories about civilian deaths at U.S. hands are everywhere — reporters killed in Baghdad, an Iraqi wedding party massacred on the Syrian border, for example — but military spokespersons stick to their routine: apologize and pay off the families.

Accusations are commonplace that millions of dollars are funneled by U.S. agencies into Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries to adjust elections. But apologists can and do easily ignore them.

These are weighty matters, as is the recently divulged CIA destruction of evidence from “hard” interrogations. By contrast, a film showing in Havana and five European visitors are small potatoes. Even so, Washington put its foot down. Why the difference?

Cuba gets its own script. The U.S. government has long applied special rules to the island nation, including liberal policies for would-be refugees from Cuba, full-bore economic sanctions and protection of anti-Cuban terrorists.

Why does Cuba warrant such treatment? The reason is that Cuba can be scary. One may have to stretch the imagination to realize that giants are underdogs when it comes to Cuba. According to mythologist James Frazier (“The Golden Bough”), giants’ souls often lie outside their bodies, “hidden away in some secret place.” If a giant’s enemies can find and destroy the soul, the giant dies, or at least — we might suggest — loses power and goes helpless.

Greed and rampant individualism characterize the soul of a capitalist empire. To construct a society marked by justice, the Cubans long ago must have determined that the offending soul must be watched over, maybe boxed up, the easier to be thrown away.

That’s the hold a tiny nation has over a bullying neighbor. In socialist Cuba, the giant’s soul is exposed as ready for the trash heap. It is used as a teaching aid. That’s why fences are in order separating people from ideas. Otherwise, all would be revealed and the giant’s soul endangered — a frightening prospect.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician active in the Cuba solidarity movement in Maine.